Nearly two decades after the war ended, Bosnia is still struggling to emerge from the vortex of hatred that destroyed the country during the 1990s. Yet what may be even more alarming is that outside of Bosnia, the memory of the genocide committed against its Muslims has become a source of inspiration for the global far right. The shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand this March wrote the names of Serbian nationalist leaders on the rifle he used to carry out the massacres. During his livestream of the attacks, he played a jaunty song performed by Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war, nicknamed “Remove Kebab,” that has become popular among the online “alt-right.” The Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people during a 2011 shooting rampage, reportedly also showed a “strange obsession” with the genocide in Bosnia, heaping praise on wartime Serb leaders in a manifesto he wrote before his attacks. A domestic terrorist in Pennsylvania who killed a state trooper in 2014 was similarly infatuated with the wartime Bosnian Serb military, posing images of himself on social media in a uniform from the notorious Drina Wolves unit. On websites like 4chan that are helping to breed a new culture of racial hatred and glorification of violence, it’s not hard to find the Bosnian genocide favorably discussed. These new online connections are also helping to foster real-world links between the Western far right and its Balkan counterparts.
In this photograph taken on December 9, 2017, a Serbian nationalist holds a flag with an image of Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, as he prepares to enter St. Sava Church in Belgrade, to attend prayers for the former Bosnian Serbian commander.Ratko Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb military chief, was given a life sentence on November 22, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, for genocide during the country's inter-ethnic war in the 1990s.
Rise of Europe’s Far Right Emboldens Serb Extremists and Threatens a Fragile Peace in Bosnia
In the ethnically cleansed areas of Bosnia, where the genocide occurred, today the perpetrators seem to have narrowed their responses to either ignoring what happened or celebrating it. In addition to the memorial on the hill above Višegrad, in the town center a bronze statue stands in honor of local military veterans, several of whom have been convicted of war crimes at The Hague. Aside from a few small plaques put up by victims’ groups in neighborhoods where mass killings happened, there is no recognition of the massacres — and those plaques have been placed on the upper floors of buildings to keep them out of reach after repeated vandalism. A few years ago, the local municipality even sandblasted the word “genocide” off a memorial stone erected by victims’ families in the town’s Muslim graveyard. When I visited that cemetery this summer, the word had still been obliterated from the monument — though someone had defiantly written it back in with black marker.
In order to understand the ideology of the emerging far right — obsessed with demographics and starry-eyed over the Bosnian genocide — it’s important to look at what actually happened in Bosnia. The grim success of the genocide in cleansing much of Bosnia should give a hint as to why it has become an inspiration. Around 100,000 people are believed to have been killed during the Bosnian war. The majority of them were Muslims. The cleansing of places like Višegrad, Fo?a, Srebrenica, Prijedor, and Zvornik was not a war between two equal and opposing forces. It was a campaign of murder and cruelty against a defenseless people, waged in the name of demographics and ethnic purity. It mixed equal parts racism and misogyny. The level of sexual violence against Bosnian Muslim women was so targeted and systematic — educated women were singled out for the worst treatment — that it led to rape being recognized for the first time as a weapon of war under international law.